Liberal Despair And the Cult Of The Presidency

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JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 17, 2010

Liberal Despair And the Cult Of The Presidency

I've been writing for several months about the curious sense of disappointment afflicting liberals
—the belief that they've been let down by a president who is, in fact, racking up historical achievements. Part of the reason for liberal dismay in an ahistorical understanding of how progress works. In the liberal memory, political success is bathed in golden-hued triumph. In reality, it is a grubby, stop-and-start process that looks pretty ugly up close. That's the heart of the argument Michael Tomasky makes in his essay in Democracy, "Against Despair":

The New Deal was not a seamless narrative of aggressively liberal steps in which conservatives were sent scampering. It was full of starts and stops, and it took a long time. There were many reasons for this, but a chief one had to do with Roosevelt himself–seen by the more impatient reformers of his day as equivocal and adhering to too few core beliefs, exactly the way some see Obama today. Alan Brinkley, in Liberalism and Its Discontents, reminds us that the general historians’ view of Roosevelt, quite far removed from that presented in the sound bites and summaries employed today, was that of "a man without an ideological core and thus unable to exercise genuine leadership." Huey Long, who sat out on FDR’s left flank, complained of this in a quote in which he invoked his ideological nemesis, the Senate majority leader from Arkansas: "When I talk to [Roosevelt], he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says ‘Fine’ to everybody."

To read through any number of thorough histories of the New Deal is to be struck not by the differences between Roosevelt (man of action) and Obama (pensive equivocator) but by the many consistencies in how politics actually unfolds in real time–the difficulties inherent in trying to effect change, the readiness to accept half a loaf, and the regular reassurances sent to the moneyed classes that the liberals hadn’t taken over the candy store. It’s worth noting, for example, that the second act to become law under the New Deal, after the Emergency Banking Act, which was a progressive piece of legislation, was a conservative bill, the Economy Act. It cut salaries of government employees and benefits to veterans, the latter by 15 percent. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, writes that literally an hour after signing the banking act, Roosevelt outlined this bill to congressional leaders, saying the next day and sounding more than a little like some Robert Rubin progenitor had been whispering in his ear: "For three long years, the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy." (And maybe one had: Schlesinger notes that Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, was certainly no Keynesian.) Just imagine Obama having tried something like that, alienating both veterans and AFSCME within a week of taking office. The Economy Act was opposed by many liberals in the House, so FDR turned to conservative Democrats and Republicans, who passed it.

A second reason for liberal despair is the cult of the presidency. Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower. I wrote about this phenomenon, with relation to the BP spill, in a recent TRB column.

Rachel Maddow offered a perfect example of the phenomenon the other night. She delivered her fantasy version of the speech President Obama should have given. It was filled with unequivocal liberal rhetoric. I was struck by this portion, explaining how she would pass an energy bill:

The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.

If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.

In reality, you can't pass any of the climate bill by reconciliation. Democrats didn't write reconciliation instructions permitting them to do so, and very little of its could be passed through reconciliation, which only allows budgetary decisions. Maddow's response is to pass the rest by executive order. But you can't change those laws through executive order, either. That's not how our system of government works, nor is it how our system should work.

If Maddow's speech had to hew to the reality of Senate rules and the Constitution, she'd be left where Obama is: ineffectually pleading to get whatever she can get out of a Senate that has nowhere near enough votes to pass even a stripped-down cap and trade bill. It may be nice to imagine that all political difficulties could be swept away by a president who just spoke with enough force and determination. It's a recurrent liberal fantasy
—Michael Moore imagined such a speech a few months ago, Michael Douglas delivers such a speech in "The American President." I would love to eliminate the filibuster and create more accountable parties. But even if that happens, there will be a legislative branch that has a strong say in what passes or doesn't pass. And that's good! We wouldn't want to live in a world where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it.

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posted in: jonathan chait, alan brinkley, arthur schlesinger, huey long, joe robinson, lewis douglas, michael tomasky, rachel maddow, robert rubin, roosevelt, arkansas, senate, united states senate

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